Chapter 17: Journey
Ernie was stuffed. He and Ken pushed away from the table, entirely satisfied with the hearty meal that Rhonda and the other St. Ives volunteers had provided them. The dining hall, which had been silent during the meal as groups of hungry homeless dug in to their meals, was now home to a healthy din of activity, as well-fed men and women chatted, discussed, and joked.
Rhonda and her staff bustled around the hall, stopping occasionally to say hello to someone they hadn’t seen in a long time, or to welcome someone new and make sure they felt welcome to come and dine at St. Ives any time.
This afternoon, Rhonda was particularly busy. The unseasonably warm weather had brought visitors from all over. When the weather was warm, people tended to get out and walk further, so the dining hall was bursting at the seams with hungry mouths. She ran back and forth from the kitchen, stopping every once in awhile to greet some of the visitors personally and introduce herself personally. She wore a big friendly smile on her face, and despite her business, always gave each individual her full attention while she talked with them.
Ernie and Ken were seated a smaller table in the corner of the room right next to the kitchen door, where they observed the other diners with passive interest. Ernie didn’t recognize many of the people there today. They were probably from the west side, and were only able to make it to St. Ives today because of the weather.
He had overheard a couple of conversations, while he and Ken ate their soup quietly, about Darryl. It wasn’t uncommon to hear familiar names, especially after someone got arrested, hurt, or killed, particularly amongst residents or frequent visitors to St. Ives.
He hadn’t gotten any more information about exactly what had happened to Darryl, but there had been quite a bit of talk about the mysterious disappearances of people the past few weeks, and their reappearance with fresh cuts and bruises. The general consensus among those Ernie overheard was that Darryl had gotten “abducted” as well, except this time, he’d wound up dead.
Ernie and Ken relaxed at their table once the meal was complete, waiting for the dining room to clear out somewhat. It was just as well; their bellies were so overstuffed with Rhonda’s hearty soup that they could barely move.
It didn’t take long for the crowd to leave the dining hall after lunch was complete. It was a warm day, after all; a day that would best be spent working their corner or block, making the most of the warmth. It was __ a day to be spent inside, warming oneself in the heated interior of the shelter.
Ken, who’d been keeping a watchful eye on the clock that peered down across the dining hall, motioned to Ernie that they should get going. They had a few minutes to walk back to Dominick’s and meet Holly there. Neither Ken nor Ernie really knew what to expect from their journey to 59 th Street , but Holly seemed to think that someone there would know something, and it made sense to follow her lead. Ernie’s presence with them would increase their credibility anyhow, and they’d be more likely to get the information they were seeking.
Ken’s zeal for the investigative arts had cooled somewhat. He had come to the conclusion, after they were unable to gain access to the hospital, that the life of a true investigator was nothing like that in his books, and that he’d be better off finding another occupation. He had, however, dragged Ernie along on this whole escapade, and felt somewhat responsible to see it through to its conclusion. Besides, if they did by some miracle manage to find out what happened to Darryl… well, that would be cool. His friends on the corner would definitely give him mad props for that.
They stood up from the table and waved at Rhonda in the kitchen, then headed out of St. Ives towards Dominick’s.
The hours between Ernie and Ken’s initial visit and three seemed to stretch on forever as Holly and Ned rang up customer after customer. Ned was moving a little more slowly than usual; his mind was on other things. He worried about Holly. She had put on a brave face when they had come back into the store, but inside he knew she wasn’t doing so well. He had seen her talking at length with Darryl after work in the parking lot; they had talked about life, love, the pursuit of happiness, and everything else under the sun.
It continued to amaze him how easily Holly spoke to everyone, especially the homeless. Her natural listening ear combined with Darryl’s love to speak had naturally drawn them to each other. Ned had not been privy to many of their conversations, but he knew that to Holly, Darryl was a special friend – she would miss him.
He looked at his watch for what seemed like the millionth time. Only a few minutes had passed, but three o’clock was almost upon them. He flipped the light on his register, signaling that he was now closed.
“Don’t worry,” he said to the confused customers still in his line. “I’ll finish up with whoever’s in my line right now, I’m just not going to be taking any new customers.” He smiled reassuringly back at them, and finished checking out the final customer in record time.
Holly was already headed back towards he back of the store to punch out, so he quickly double-checked his register and followed her blonde head back to the time-card system.
They remained silent as they walked together to the front of the store and pushed through the revolving door into the glaring mid-afternoon sun. Ernie and Ken were just walking into the parking lot, and the four of them rendezvoused in the middle of the nearly deserted lot.
Ernie still wasn’t his usual active self, Holly noticed, but the lunch had done him good; at least he didn’t look so peaked – just sad. His headphone’s still hung around his neck uselessly, which was unusual and ind icated that perhaps he had been taking this harder than she had initially thought. Well, hopefully the guys at 59 th street would be able to shed some light on the whole situation and give them all a little bit of closure.
Ned was glad that he’d driven the van today. Normal ly he drove an old, barely running Volkswagen Jetta, but it had not been cooperating this morning, so Lavina had offered to take the bus to her job across town, so Ned could take the van. The van would easily accommodate all four of the travelers; the Jetta would have been quit a squeeze.
Everyone piled in, Ned driving, Holly in the passenger seat, and Ken and Ernie in the back, staring silently out the window as they pulled out of the parking lot. The trip to 59 th was not far, and traffic was light at this point in the afternoon, so they arrived at the underpass within a few minutes.
Ned pulled over to the right and turned on his emergency fla shers. There was nowhere to park in this area, but he hoped they wouldn’t be staying long; though Holly knew several of the people here, and Ernie was no doubt a familiar face to most, he still felt uncomfortable. He didn’t readily admit it, especially to Holly, but the grubby faces with their piercing eyes and wary stares, the dirty, worn corduroys, jeans, and jackets, and the makeshift dwellings made of cardboard and newspaper – all of it made him very uncomfortable.
He stuck close to Holly as she moved confidently through the individual dwellings under the bridge, Ernie and Ken trailing a short distance behind. She stopped several times to speak with people she recognized, but moved on after determining that the person knew nothing about Darryl.
They milled about for around 20 minutes, Holly growing more and more impatient as they walked. No one knew anything – or if they did, they weren’t telling her. As they passed by the dark recesses of a drain pipe along the lower end of the slope, a low, rich voice called out softly.
“Hey.” Holly turned, peering in the direction from which the voice had come. She saw nothing. “Down here, in the pipe.” Looking down she saw the silhouetted outline of a man lying inside the large pipe, a thin blanket wrapped around him.
“As long as the water ain’t runnin’, there’s not a better bed for miles,” he said, referring to the pipe in which he laid. “I hear you guys are lookin’ for Darryl.”
Holly stepped closer to the man, who pulled himself out of the pipe and stood to greet them.
“Well, not exactly… Darryl’s dead…” Holly said softly, looking down at her feet as she spoke.
“Oh, I know,” the man responded. “My name’s James. We’se quite a pair, me and him. Used to share everything we made, everything we had. We were good friends. So if there’s somethin’ you want to know about him, I’m your man.” He thrust his hand out at Holly, who took it and shook it firmly. Ned followed suit.
“Well, it ain’t much,” James said, motioning at the concrete slope alongside the drain pipe. “But have a seat… let’s talk about Darryl.”